Reclaiming Self-Interest

“To what purpose should we trouble ourselves about the world in the moon?”-Adam Smith

We are the victims of our own poisons: to those toxic manifestations we seek to remedy, but only medicate; often only sedating. To that poison which gives one the desire to target those who falsely attest to fabricating panaceas for countering the opiate we facilitate and foster within our own minds; and the ensuing impulse to eliminate those mistaken instigators, rather than simply ignoring the charlatans into oblivion. This selfish thing, selfishness, is that poison from which we derive from our desires, and in allowing selfishness to flourish unchecked, or blaming its conception on surrogates, we deprive ourselves the beneficence of our own self-interest. In pursuing self-interest we avoid the caustic nature of selfishness, and regardless of the ire self-interest may arouse in some groups (utilitarianists, collectivists, etc), it remains the only true panacea to combat the savagery that often results from selfishness.

Self-interest is an important concept in human interaction, however, it’s often expressed synonymously with selfishness, and for that reason selfishness also becomes a key, although distinct concept that requires differentiation in order to not confuse the two in a manner in which they appear to derive from and reciprocate with each other.The actualization of this apparent synonymity  arises from an ever expanding void of underdeveloped focus (and often the intentional abuse) of both terms, often with the objective of bastardizing freedom in some form or another (whether that form be free-association, free-trade, free-agency, etc.).  Accordingly, it’s the primary goal of this brief article to differentiate the concepts of self-interest and selfishness: to praise the concept of self-interest as the catalyst of moral action, therefore worthy of admiration; and thus to admonish selfishness as the instigator which often leads to immorality and inconsiderate hedonism. Consequently, containing these two sentiments from one another in order to redeem the term self-interest and to specify its appropriateness becomes an intellectual necessity.

There is substance in postulating that selfishness and self-interest are related (although not synonymous). This relationship is simple as selfishness is a basic human sentiment: acting upon one’s own desire and welfare irrespective of exogenous factors such as another’s liberty and/or the subsequent approbation or disapprobation that may be given in reaction to a chosen means of action. Selfishness transpires without consideration for the rights of others, without the consent of others, and without regard to the consequences those actions exude to any person tangled into the unfoldings and conclusions of these actions. Hence, selfishness is simply inconsiderate means of acting for the immediate perceived benefits to one’s self.

Conversely, self-interest is composed of action preceded by considerations, or “checks” on selfishness,  which shouldn’t propose that selfishness begets self-interest, but rather “checks” differentiate self-interest from selfishness. Checks are the conscious examination of the potential effects of acting upon desires. To understand checks and their relationship to self-interest,  as Adam Smith may have suggested, one would have to examine their intent as if they were an “impartial spectator”. Would this spectator observe these actions with approbation or disapprobation? Would these actions do ill to other parties?This sort of contemplation prior to choosing the means to act offers the individual the opportunity to reflect upon the possible ramifications of the known (and situationally contrived) alternative means to act; to consider how these means of action may affect others that may become involved,  their relationship to the parties involved, and how disinterested parties may view these actions (and thus the person who is acting).

Multitudes of scenarios may be imagined when an individual takes the consequences of their speculative future choices into consideration: if fulfilling a desire will affect another person, is this effect positive or negative? Does fulfilling this desire infringe upon the life and/or liberty of people who will be involved? If so, is there an alternative means which will not to deprive a person of their rights? Consequently, if it’s not possible to fulfill this desire without negatively affecting those involved at this time, self-interest would dictate that the desire isn’t to be acted upon until it can be fulfilled in a manner in which it would not negatively affect others. If it’s never possible to act upon a desire in the fashion dictated by one’s self-interest, it should never be acted upon. Again, this preceding act of consideration distinguishes self-interest from selfishness.

Approbation is one hell of a drug. Nevertheless, understanding how approbation is a useful check on selfishness, in additional to being the potential motivator for selfishness, becomes teleologically paramount. Furthermore, approbation, like pharmaceuticals, can be beneficial in certain doses, or toxic in unregulated quantities. But, unlike pharmaceuticals, approbation isn’t an isolated and prescribed substance for the body to metabolize in order to receive its formulated benefit. Rather, approbation is an abstract, arbitrary, and complex sentiment; an approval upon observing preferred-actions based on the observer’s subjective moral and/or value propensities. Seeking the approbation of others is instinctual and in receiving the approbation of others an individual writes a mental catalogue to reference for future action. Accordingly, a desire to discriminately-act exclusively in anticipation for approbation may restrict a person’s actions to lust for approbation and, in solely seeking approbation, this lust for approbation becomes as selfish as if they were acting inconsiderate to begin with. So, while forecasting approbation is a useful tool that may be utilized in checking selfishness, exclusively seeking approbation presents a conflict to self-interest, and the reality of this conflict stresses the delicate nature of approbation-seeking’s role in self-interest. Additionally, approbation is more appropriately an unintended consequence of other considerations when reflecting upon the means to act, rather than becoming an auxiliary expectation.

Self-interest should be promoted as it allows individuals to act without conflict to other’s interests, liberty, and often benefits others as well as aids in their self-interest. This divine equation proposes that individuals are responsible not only to themselves, but in doing so they are being responsible to others and quite often creating benefits for others just as they receive for themselves.  Albeit the quality of outcomes are dependant on the quality and availability of data to the acting individual; it’s the consideration of the available data establishes self-interest. Additionally, omniscient knowledge isn’t a component of the human condition, and as such, only in a quixotic universe is self-interest the utopian-mechanism that some ideologues believe it to be. Limitations aside, self-interest is no less valuable, and in this non-utopian reality, it’s essential that ideas not be limited by utopian-idiation. “To what purpose should we trouble ourselves about the world in the moon?”-Adam Smith